Friday, 28 October 2016

Neath: one final railway reminisce

Everything has a use-by date, and when it comes to trains, it doesn't matter if its a locomotive, a railway line or even a railway blogger. When I took a break from writing novels in 2014 to indulge in some blogging about one of my favourite pastimes, I didn't know that my love of trains would take me from Kuranda to Warrnambool. Factor in my previous trips to see the sugar cane railways of far north Queensland, the inland railways along the Newell Highway and a tiny bush tramway at Ida Bay in the far south of Tasmania, I can honestly say that I've seen a lot of railway lines in this country. Including one former railway station that up until this year I didn't know existed, at a little place called Neath in the New South Wales Hunter Valley.

What remains of Neath Station on the former South Maitland Line, as photographed in May 2016.

Neath Station first opened in 1908 on the privately owned South Maitland Railway system, built to link the region's coal mines to the port at Newcastle. Nearby Neath Colliery had opened 2 years earlier in 1906 by the Wickham & Bullock Island Coal Company, after the line had first been constructed through Neath to Cessnock in 1904. The line to Neath Colliery veered to the left in the above photo, at a point just beyond the signal box. A flurry of independently owned and operated coal mines soon sprung up close to the railway line,with each of them hauling their own 4 wheeled wooden hoppers to the nearest junction to be collected and taken to port. Eventually, this complicated labyrinth of privately owned railway lines became the South Maitland Railway, a railway which continued using steam engines to haul their trains to port, right up until 1983.

The station sign on Neath platform with The Neath Hotel in the background, May 2016.

At one time the line through Neath was double tracked as far as Aberdare Junction, hence the two platforms that can still be seen at Neath Station today. The South Maitland Railway operated a passenger railcar on the line between Cessnock and Maitland, where the line junctioned with both the NSW Main North Line and NSW North Coast Lines. Later in 1940, the NSW Government Railways introduced direct passenger services between Cessnock to Sydney and Cessnock to Newcastle, and my own copy of the 1956 Country Train Services timetable shows Neath marked only as a "stops if required" station. By 1967 the South Maitland Railway service had been withdrawn, and the NSW Government followed soon after in May 1972, the same year as it turns out that I was born.

The line through Neath has since reverted to single track to serve the one remaining coal loader at the end of the line at Pelton. Coal from the nearby Austar Colliery is fed by a conveyor belt through a long cutting and beneath Wollombi Road to the still intact surface loading facilities where the Pelton Colliery once operated, and from here, as always, the coal finds its way to the Port of Newcastle by train.

Neath Station still retains a little of that bygone charm today in 2016.

Turning the filter on my camera to sepia tone gives a glimpse of what this station must have looked like back in its day. Today, the tiny signal box dwarfs the the toilet block come waiting shelter that still stands on the platform alongside Cessnock Road. Ignoring the unimaginative graffiti that seems to always find its way into the corners of God-knows-where, there is a certain something about Neath that seems both foreign and all-too-familiar. Perhaps it is the quaint size and shape of the signal box. Or maybe it is the fact that a signal box with no apparent purpose is still standing in this day and age. One thing is for certain, having purchased a HO scale kit building of this signal box from Model Train Buildings, I will soon have a scale-sized reminder of this little place near nowhere.

The impressive 1914 Neath Hotel. What a place to end a railway adventure. May 2016.

Actually, I shouldn't say nowhere. That impressive 3 story brick building that you can see just down the road in the background of my photos turned out to be The Neath Hotel. Passing through Neath one more time during our visit to the Hunter Valley with my wife Denise, we noticed 2 tour buses pulled up outside. Taking this as a sign that it might actually be a really good hotel, we stopped the car just on twilight to check it out, and ended up staying for dinner. After the excitement of 2 bus loads full of Sydneysiders on their way home from a day day of visiting the local vineyards had pulled out of town, a blanket of silence fell over the place. Just as it does whenever the last train pulls away from the station. If you've ever stood on the platform to wave goodbye to someone, you'll now exactly what I'm talking about. You listen for the feint sound of a distant whistle, and hear only crickets.

Sauntering into the quiet ambiance of the dining room, we stopped dead in our tracks at the sight of this slice of Australiana. Built in 1914, the dining room looked as though little had changed since World War 2. Sitting in the quiet charm of such an unexpected find, we indulged in a traditional Aussie roast dinner while wondering about the history of this 100 year old pub. It turns out that the pub was a favourite with coal miners who would stop by for a drink after a day working the mines. One of those miners, a bloke by the name of Harry Littlefair, went off to war, but not before asking the publican of the time to mind his miner's lamp. Harry never made it home, and his lamp still remains behind the bar at The Neath Hotel.

It's stories like these that have inspired me as a writer, and its amazing to think of how many of them I have discovered from just stopping to see what remains of a former railway station. I wonder if Harry actually boarded a troop train at Neath station? Maybe, maybe not. But it doesn't hurt to stop and imagine what stories an old railway station such as Neath might be hiding. Maybe that's just the romantic in me, but whatever your thoughts are, I do thank you for reading the past 100 Railway Reminiscing articles that I have featured on this blog.

Strangely I find myself ending a blog post without the phrase "but as usual, that's a story for another day." While still hopeful that there will be more books to follow somewhere in the future, I feel that this post is as good a place as any to call it a day on my blogging series. Who knows? In the future I may even collate all of these tales into one big book to remember this period of my life by.

In the words of a somewhat half-decent writer; "everything has a use-by date.... even a railway blogger." Till we meet somewhere down the line, take care and safe travels.


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